Governments urged to act on tertiary decline

Victoria University vice-chancellor urges government action on declining rates of tertiary participation. Picture: David GeraghtyVictoria University vice-chancellor urges government action on declining rates of tertiary participation. Picture: David Geraghty

Victoria University vice-chancellor Peter Dawkins has warned that Australia will be locked into falling participation in tertiary education well into the next decade unless governments take urgent action.

Professor Dawkins urged the federal and state governments to boost funding, particularly to boost student numbers in the vocational education and training sector, where participation has been in decline for many years.

In a new paper with co-authors Peter Noonan and Peter Hurley, Professor Dawkins projects that participation in higher education will be flat for the next decade and VET participation will continue to decline based on current government higher education policy and the two-year trend in the VET sector.

“There is a risk that participation rates in tertiary education (which includes both higher education and VET) will decline almost six percentage points overall, or one-fifth, from their peak in 2012,” the paper says, projecting that the rate in 2030 could be only 26.2 per cent, compared with 32 per cent in 2012.

“Unless governments try to take on the issues it will make the economy less productive. It’s a false economy to be disinvesting in tertiary education,” said Professor Dawkins, an economist who was previously a senior Victor­ian bureaucrat, as well as head of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research.

But the paper also urges federal and state governments jointly to make reforms to tertiary education that will reduce its unit cost, while producing better graduates who meet employers’ needs.

Strategies to contain the cost of tertiary education reform include:

 Ensuring that lower-cost VET education grows faster then higher education.

 Offering an increasing proportion of higher education degrees through cheaper VET pathway courses.

 Boosting “micro-learning” in which students do short courses focused on upgrading specific skills.

 Increasing the investment by industry in education and training.

The paper also calls for a broad review of higher education and VET funding to be undertaken through the Council of Australian Governments.

The paper urges the two levels of government to jointly commit to “rethink and revitalise tertiary education”.

It says they need to co-finance growth in VET enrolments and rebuild TAFE.

It also recommends the federal government take over funding of VET courses at the diploma and advanced diploma level and that the incentive states have to move funding away from VET be removed.

The report calls for a HECS-style income-contingent loan system to be extended across the VET sector to ensure students do not face upfront tuition fees.

It also calls for VET learning to move away from the current “competency-based model”, which has “squeezed broader-based skills and capabilities to the margins of the curriculum”.

“This contributes to the current gap between what the VET sector is providing, and the skills needs expressed by Australian employers,” the report says.

The paper argues that its reform agenda will have many economic benefits generated by increased participation in tertiary education, workforce enhancement and promotion of economic growth.

“This in turn would generate more tax revenue for government and reduce its expenditure in dealing with unemployment and underemployment,” it says.

“This would justify an increased investment in tertiary education and training by governments, without imposing a fiscal burden.”

Last night, Professor Dawkins delivered the Mitchell Institute Policy Lecture, which was based on the paper.

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